By James Caughlin
The NFL lockout is now in its second month and fans are rightfully beginning to hit the stage where they simply stop caring. Mike Florio from Pro Football Talk said that his site is experiencing a massive downturn in traffic related to the draft. Whether that has to do with the fact this draft class outside of Cam Newton is not as compelling as others (more on that in another article) or the fact that most fans are hitting back at the lockout with apathetic attitudes towards what could be the last NFL event for a while. To be perfectly frank, there is no way that 99% of the people involved in these in any way, shape or form, DeMaurice Smith is another matter. If I had to allocate blame to one side over the other, it would go to the players but the owners are not without fault in this matter too.
On the players’ side, the 2006 labor deal was excellent for them, a deal struck between good buddies Paul Tagliabue and Gene Upshaw to just keep the game going in the short term. A few years later Tagliabue has retired and succeeded by Roger Goodell, a former league lawyer and understudy to Tagliabue while Gene Upshaw has sadly passed away from cancer and been replaced by DeMaurice Smith, a confrontational former lawyer who bares a mild resemblance to the guy who played Hooch in Scrubs (or is it just me?).
The deal was at the time seen as a relief because it meant the league would avoid the peril of dealing with an uncapped year, only 2 owners (Mike Brown in Cincinnati and Ralph Wilson in Buffalo) voted against it as they felt they may lose money with this deal, they were dismissed as small market owners being paranoid. It granted the players their highest revenue share ever and has resulted in the salary cap skyrocketing to astronomical levels. The implementation of the salary floor of approximately 90% of the salary cap meant that owners could not be stingy with their payrolls either. Unfortunately the owners decided that the share the players were getting was too much & that they were (allegedly) having their profits go down potentially to the point where they were losing money, although we have no idea whether or not that’s true since they refuse to open their books. Prior to the 2006 deal, every CBA had been perceived as owner friendly, however the concessions that the owners made to get the deal done resulted in a player-friendly agreement and the owners decided that they wanted some of the ground they gave up back.
2 years ago the owners decided to opt out of the CBA starting the clock on the round of negotiations that are still going. The NFL Players Association (NFLPA) took their time hiring a replacement for Mr Upshaw which delayed the start of negotiations. When De Smith was hired, he beat out three other candidates including highly touted former player Troy Vincent. Smith’s style is incredibly confrontational and occasionally over the top, including likening the negotiation process to a ‘war’ which probably was not the smartest word choice. From the start, the union adopted the line that they would not back down on any of the concessions they got from the owners, a great tactic for the players but unfortunately for them, they did not possess all the leverage in the negotiations.
Come March 11 this year as the extended deadline for the old CBA was about to expire chaos hit. After two plus weeks of mediation the owners tabled a proposal that has been called by many amazingly generous considering some of the key issues that they backed down on. The NFLPA rejected the proposal and proceeded to decertify as a union leading to a lockout and several lawsuits which are still up in the air.
From what I have seen and heard reported so far it would appear that while the owners are not blame free, the majority of our fans frustration at the path the NFL is on should be directed squarely at the players. Since the lockout began the owners have done a fantastic job running their PR campaign regarding their final offer and what the players left on the table regarding the key points of contention between the two sides while the players have been left to run around like headless chickens as they are no longer technically an organised group. Even recent reports suggest a schism is opening up within the “union” as a group of mid tier players are trying to hire a law firm to intervene with the current mediation talks to ensure their interests are being served.
The NFL’s preseason can be incredibly tedious and painful to sit through when we are left watching guys who at best were 5th round picks fighting to make the roster. We are forced to sit through this for four weeks when most of the starters get their work done in training camp before the games start. Under the current set up of a guaranteed 20 game season, each team received 10 home games where they can make money off the fans. Eight of these dates are regular season games however most of the fans’ objection to the preseason is that they are asked to pay full price to two other games that are not full quality. Fans wanted the number of preseason games to go down but the owners did not want to lose a home date and sacrifice the money. As an apparent compromise the league decided to alter the structure of the 20-game NFL season to two preseason games and eighteen regular season games. As has been their nature the players have objected to the increase in games they would actually have to play in since that is two extra full working weeks that would not have resulted in anymore pay but with increased physical demands on them. No one will ever be able to legitimately claim that the NFL is not a demanding sport even with the padding provided to the players. Research has shown that every play the hits a player experiences are equivalent to a car crash.
The players argue that an extra two games a season will result in even shorter careers in a career where the average length is all of three and a half seasons. An NFL player’s lifespan is incredibly short and the players in the league are looking to earn enough money to set them up for life as they have been building to this point for their whole childhood. Claiming that an average NFL career lasts for only three and a half years because of the physical nature of the sport is only partially true. A key fact that the players ignore is the fact that so many players burn out from year to year because they are not good enough to make it in the league. Having the enhanced season was seen as a key point for the owners to gain in the new agreement but as part of the latest offer they agreed to keep the current four and sixteen structure for at least two seasons and any changes would require the NFLPA to agree as well.
During the negotiations, one of the best examples of the NFLPA being stupidly stubborn came from the owners’ financial information. To prove that they were in fact experiencing diminished returns the owners were requested to provide documented proof that they were in fact losing money from the current CBA. The most common theory as to why the owners would not meet the players’ demands is because of the competition between each other. Each owner receives a certain amount of money from the league and through their own money making projects and they are free to spend it in any way they want. Several of the owners employ their family members within the organisation to fulfil certain roles but there is no regulation of their salary. There is nothing stopping an owner giving his son or daughter a cushy job in the front office and paying them $1 000 000 a year to do next to nothing. De Smith requested 10 years of thoroughly audited financial statements with each team named as proof of this and nothing less. Because the paranoid owners did not want their business partners and competitors finding out what they were spending their money on, they refused. There is nothing wrong with him wanting proof before asking his players to take a pay cut however once again, his hard line negotiating tactic makes him come across as a stubborn toddler who has an idea of what he wants and will accept nothing less. Reports are that the owners made a substantial offer of anonymous statements with team names and identifying facts blanked out. Why that was rejected by the owners is beyond me but that is part of the process.
After the 2006 negotiations the general consensus is that the players got a phenomenal deal that was unprecedented in NFL Labor negotiations. Needless to say the owners wanted to find a middle ground in the current round of negotiations for a deal that would favor them or at the very least hurt them less that the current one is reportedly doing. To prove this they were asked to provide financial statements that showed they were losing money and not just being greedy. In the interests of competition/paranoia (depends on what you want to call it) they offered information that could not identify individual teams however that was rejected by the union. The owners also agreed to back down on the eighteen game regular season plan but that also was not enough without the financial information. For this negotiation to end with a good result both sides will need to learn to trust each other and find a middle ground that suits everyone rather than trying to hit home runs all the time. The owners need to realize that the players need a reason to give back some of the gains that they made in the last deal, assuming that there are losses occurring while the players need to not be as stubborn and realize that unless you are negotiating against baboons, compromise is essential and from all reports, only one side is offering to make a sacrifice.
To end this article I feel it appropriate to offer a piece of advice from a lot of NFL fans to both the owners and the players. Please pull your heads out of your backsides, get negotiating and reach a deal that works for both sides because the longer this mess goes on, the more fans are going to go away from the game. We all love the NFL but if it comes down to it, we can all do without it, in the USA alone there is basketball (for now), ice hockey and baseball. Worldwide there is football (soccer), rugby and so many other sports that we can watch instead if you guys decide that you can’t split up the $9billion deal. It’s on you now, don’t mess it up for us.
NOTE: For those who are interested I will be doing draft commentary via twitter @jcaughlin12 for the first round at least so follow & enjoy.